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San Gabriel Valley's last airport faces a cloudy future

Flying enthusiasts seek to preserve small aviation outpost in El Monte against growing pressure to develop the land.

October 20, 2012|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • With the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop, aviator Gabe Lopez brings his vintage biplane in for a low pass during an open house at the El Monte Airport. Supporters of the airport fear it will be overtaken by pressure to develop the land.
With the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop, aviator Gabe Lopez brings… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Arcadia and Monrovia had one. So did Rosemead. San Gabriel's was named for its historic mission. Alhambra's once boasted the largest hangar in the world.

They were built in an era when Los Angeles County imagined itself to be "in the vanguard of vanguards in matters of aviation," as a supervisor said in 1929.

But the airports of the San Gabriel Valley have all but vanished. In their places are shopping centers, car dealerships and housing tracts.

Now, an aviation group is trying to make sure the last one doesn't disappear as well: tiny El Monte Airport sees no commercial use and is hardly known outside the private pilot community. Some of its supporters worry that development pressures will overtake it too, leaving the region without an airport.

So members of the San Gabriel Valley Airport Assn. are campaigning to attract new users, and — hoping to widen the airport's appeal — they want to change its name. Something like the San Gabriel Valley Airport has a nice, broad ring to it, they say.

"If everyone feels it's theirs and a developer comes in, we've got 30-something cities behind us," said Gabe Lopez, who keeps three planes at the airport and has met with one of the county's aviation commissioners about the name change.

Although it is within El Monte's city limits, the airport is owned by Los Angeles County. Built in 1936 and renovated several times, it absorbs no state or local tax money and is instead funded by federal and state grants and pilots who pay hangar rental fees and purchase fuel. The three flight schools on the grounds also pay rent.

In the 1960s, the airport was owned by a Pasadena attorney who attempted to sell it to a developer with plans to build a giant condominium complex. The county instead bought the airport in 1969 to be an emergency staging area for the San Gabriel Valley.

Some pilots believe the airport has switched its focus to making money. One-fourth of the more than 250 hangars are being rented as storage facilities.

Lopez, 53, often encounters residents who are unaware of an airport in their midst. Airport association members say the airport's name makes it appear to be tied only to El Monte, a working-class city of 114,000. They hope to turn it into a regional attraction before support for it diminishes.

Over the years, some politicians have mentioned that they would like the county to sell or use the land for a different purpose. A past supervisor mentioned that the site might be good for a hospital. And El Monte officials at one point discussed the possibility of building a sports complex on the site. There have also been suggestions of a park or soccer fields.

"It's a huge piece of property right in the heart of our city and it would be so nice if we could do something different with it like entertainment or retail," Mayor Andre Quintero said.

Quintero said the city hasn't seriously considered a plan for the land, calling such a purchase a Herculean effort. El Monte's airport would be much more difficult to convert than the older, privately or municipally owned ones were. Several agencies, including the FAA, would have to approve the deal. And many of the airport's grants came with the stipulation that the land be used for aviation.

The county receives occasional inquiries about the airport from developers, but there are no proposals on the table, said Richard Smith of the county's aviation division. He also said the county values the airport and views it as critical infrastructure.

A name change would make pilots like Lopez feel more secure about the airport's future, but that too is not a simple task, Smith said. "There's geographical concerns. Pilots look at an aviation chart, they don't look at a map and try to find the San Gabriel Valley, they go to El Monte," he said.

The pilots say the larger issue is getting people to recognize that small airports such as El Monte's are crucial to the future of the aviation industry. War veterans who once populated the pilot ranks have retired or died. Earlier this year, Boeing predicted a shortage in new airline pilots, estimating that 460,000 would be needed around the world by 2031. The loss of airports means fewer places to log flight hours.

It doesn't help that flying is perceived as a rich man's sport, and the flight schools at the airport have trouble attracting young people from the Latino and Asian immigrant communities that dominate the San Gabriel Valley.

"Being a pilot is almost thought of as untouchable around here," said the airport's manager Chris Brooks. "When the school groups visit and I tell them, 'You can fly,' they look at me with huge eyes."

Brooks points out that there are loans and scholarships and that a flight school investment is often less expensive than a four-year college. There is also a strong chance of employment.

On a recent weekday, dozens of planes were anchored to the airport's cracked, black tarmac, their propellers still. Only the occasional growl of an engine from a small plane taking off broke the afternoon stillness.

The terminal, however, bustled. Annia's Kitchen, known for its pancakes and chile verde, is the airport's main attraction. Hundreds of regulars drop by daily, many of them children who stare at the runway, eager to catch sight of pilots taking to the skies.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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